A Parsifal Leitmotiv guide

they left out the Ni-Motiv.

The Met’s new production of Parsifal, premiering on February 15, is one of the most-anticipated events of the season in New York. (For me, at least. See also.) In my continuing quest to be useful, and as a sequel to my Ring Leitmotiv guide of last year, here is a guide to the motives and other recurring themes of Parsifal for your reference and appreciation. This one I did not make myself, it is from an old public domain piano-vocal edition of the score. Not all the terms and associations are really up with current thinking on this piece, but if you’re just getting started it should suit you fine. After the jump you can find it as an embedded PDF (which you can download here as well), with my translations of the German terms following.

This table lists the motives in approximate order of appearance. Since some motives appear only very briefly in Act 1 and are far more prominent in Act 2 (all the magic garden stuff), they might seem out of order, but they aren’t.

Note for newbies: Parsifal won’t appear on anyone’s Most Accessible Operas list, but if you have patience it rewards your efforts. It was my first Wagner opera, er, music drama, er, Bühnenweihfestspiel, which I don’t advise for others but it just… happened and I got into it eventually. Don’t expect it to necessarily be immediately appealing, though, you need to let it sink in. Though maybe you’re a Parsifal idiot savant, a Parsifal Parsifal. Who knows? (Also, you could try reading this book chapter, and I am recommending in part for its title, which is “Strange Love, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Parsifal,” and also for the phrase, “a kind of Armageddon cocktail with large twists of Schopenhauer and Buddha,” but mostly because it is very clear, informative, and thought-provoking.)

Here is the key to all that archaic German, in painfully literal translation.

  1. Liebesmahlthema: theme of the love feast (i.e. Last Supper), Leidens-M.: motive of sorrow, Speer-M.: motive of the spear
  2. Grals-M: motive of the Grail
  3. Glaubenstheme: Theme of belief/faith (Umgestaltungen des Glaubensthema: transformations of the theme of belief/faith)
  4. M. der Schwermut: motive of melancholy
  5. Heilesbuße-M.: motive of the healing/salvation-giving kiss
  6. Amfortas-M.: Amfortas motive
  7. M. der Verheißung (Toren-M.): motive of promise (fool motive)
  8. Ritter-M.: rider/knight motive (Kundry)
  9. Kundry-M.: Kundry motive
  10. M. des Dienens: motive of servitude
  11. Waldesmelodie: forest melody
  12. Zauber-M.: motive of magic
  13. Leidens-M.: motive of sorrow (see theme of the love-feast)
  14. Speer-M.: motive of the spear (see theme of the love-feast)
  15. Charfreitags-M. (i.e. Karfreitag): motive of Good Friday
  16. Klingsor-M.: Klingsor motive
  17. Kose-M.: motive of caressing
  18. Mädchenklage: maidens’ plaint
  19. Minnebegehr-M.: motive of the desire for courtly love (sorry, not so translatable -ed.)
  20. Streit-M.: motive of conflict
  21. Schmeichel-M.: motive of flattery
  22. Schwan-M. (Lohengrin): swan motive (Lohengrin)
  23. Parsifal-M.: Parsifal motive
  24. Herzeleide-M.: Herzeleide motive (Parsifal’s mother -ed.)
  25. Gralsglocken-M.: motive of the grail bells
  26. Hingebungs-M.: motive of devotion
  27. Schmerzensweh-M.: motive of suffering (Herzeleide)
  28. M. des Sehnens: motive of yearning (Kundry)
  29. Verführungsfigur: figure of seduction
  30. M. der Öde: motive of desolation
  31. M. des Irrens: motive of deception
  32. Entsühnungsmelodie: melody of atonement
  33. Blumenauethema: theme of the field of flowers
  34. Segesspruch: indication of blessing
  35. Totenfeierthema: funeral theme
  36. Weihegruß: salutation of consecration

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  1. Nice…now all we need is the show. While it's very helpful to map the themes, it may also be helpful to know what the production had in mind. The NYT preview was poorly written, but there's a decent review of the production when it was in Lyon on Opera-Cake.

    Now that Met audiences have seen their first bübeez in the pole dancer in Rigoletto, I guess they're ready for all of act II of Parsifal performed in a stage full of blood…